CAESAREA, Israel — Thousands of Israelis lined up this week outside the municipal auditorium in Or Akiva, south of Haifa, to pay their last respects to Ezer Weizman, Israel’s seventh president, who died of pneumonia April 24 at age 80.
A nephew of Israel’s founding president, Weizman was a larger-than-life figure, a dashing fighter-pilot who helped found Israel’s air force, served as a principal architect of Israel’s military victory in 1967 and helped to forge peace with Egypt in 1979.
A career soldier turned politician, he began on the political right but made a highly public transition from hawk to dove, saying that Jews had to learn to “share this part of the world” with Arabs.
“Generations of pilots, soldiers and youngsters are taught the story of your life,” Prime Minister Sharon said at Weizman’s funeral. “You were always a believer in Israel’s strength, its talent and the courage in the hearts of its citizens. You were a fierce opponent of any display of weakness.”
But, Sharon said, “There was also the Ezer of mischief, of a drink, and of laughter.”
Weizman served as president from 1993 to 2000, the first native-born Israeli to hold the largely ceremonial post. He was forced to resign midway through his second five-year term because of press disclosures about a financial scandal earlier in his career.
His casual style and habitual bluntness endeared him to ordinary Israelis but often confounded his fellow politicians. He once dismissed the strategic value of the Jordan River, calling it a “10-meter sewage canal.” He angered civil libertarians repeatedly by calling for concessions to ultra-Orthodox parties in return for peace concessions, once declaring that he would “wear a streimel,” a Hasidic fur hat, “if it would help bring peace.”
As president, Weizman once shocked Diaspora Jews by hosting a ceremony to honor leading Jewish educators, and then upbraiding them for not moving to Israel.
Weizman was born in Tel Aviv in 1924, and his family moved to Haifa shortly thereafter. His father, Yehiel, was the brother of Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president.
Weizman learned to fly at 16 and volunteered to serve in Great Britain’s Royal Air Force at age 18. As a founder of the Israeli air force he undertook daring missions during the 1948 War of Independence.
In 1958, Weizman was appointed commander of the Israeli air force, a post he held for eight years. A year after he left the post to become head of the army’s Operations Branch, the 1967 war broke out. The war cemented the reputation of Israel’s air force and confirmed Weizman’s hero status.
Immediately after retiring from the military, Weizman joined Menachem Begin’s Herut Party and entered Golda Meir’s unity coalition as transportation minister. He helped lead Begin’s party to its historic upset victory in the elections of 1977. As Begin’s defense minister, he established close ties with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. Their personal chemistry helped advance the peace treaty between the two countries.
In 1980, Weizman resigned from his post because of disagreements with Begin over the pace at which the agreement was being implemented. Shortly afterward he was expelled from Begin’s party. Four years later he formed his own faction, eventually merging it into the Labor Party.
He joined Yitzhak Shamir’s unity government in 1988 as science minister, but was nearly fired a year later after the press disclosed that he had met in Europe with a leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Such meetings were illegal at the time under Israeli law.
He quit politics in 1992. A year later he emerged as a surprise candidate for president, succeeding Chaim Herzog. Despite clear reluctance on his part, public pressure convinced him to take the post. After the Knesset confirmed him, Weizman said he knew what a president was not allowed to do, but wasn’t sure what was allowed.
In late 1993 Weizman invited Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat to his official residence in an effort to advance the peace process that angered many Israelis. Later he became a public critic of the peace process, angering his onetime ally Yitzhak Rabin, then prime minister.
Weizman was forced to resign as president midway through his second term over a police probe into allegations that he had accepted bribes from a French Jewish philanthropist while serving as a Knesset member and Cabinet minister. Charges were never pressed as the statute of limitations had expired.
Weizman was hospitalized in Haifa two months ago, suffering from pneumonia, and spent weeks in an induced coma and on a respirator. He was released from the intensive care unit two weeks ago and sent home fully conscious, according to a Rambam Hospital physician. Friends said he was released in poor condition and had returned home to die.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak telephoned Weizman’s widow, Reuma, to express sorrow at the death of his “dear friend.” Condolence messages were also received, from Jordanian King Abdullah II and former American president Jimmy Carter.
Weizman was buried Tuesday in a state ceremony in the cemetery at Or Akiva, next to his hometown of Caesarea, in a plot adjoining the graves of his son and daughter-in-law, who were killed in a car crash in 1992.